The “Creed” of Balboa

Critic’s Preface: I vehemently reject the idea that film as entertainment and film as art have to be mutually exclusive. When I watch a movie, I’m looking at whether it works, effectively whether or not it does what it has set out to do. Liking a film doesn’t always correlate to whether I think it’s successful or good. With that being said, let’s get on to the review:

Review, “Creed” (Director: Ryan Coogler), Overall Rating: 3 out of 4 punches to the face

Released November 25, 2015
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Written by Coogler and Aaron Covington
Cinematography by Maryse Alberti
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Tonny Bellew, Phylicia Rashad
Running Time: 133 minutes
Budget: $35 million
Worldwide Box Office (as of this publication date): $70 million

Any man with father issues is bound to well up while watching “Creed,” a movie that finds its emotional resonance in a very satisfying way, despite stumbling out of the gates and some glaring character issues. Now to my first point, as someone with serious father issues, I am definitely allowing the “Rocky-as-surrogate-father” plot to affect my judgment of the movie altogether. But there’s enough truly confident, masterful filmmaking from director Ryan Coogler to outweigh the very clunky elements of the film that mostly stem from its need to rely on the Rocky universe it lives in and justified its making.

The film is saddled with a poorly thought-out backstory that doesn’t work from the get-go. Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is introduced to us in juvenile hall as a “really good kid who just likes to fight.” So we know right away what we’re supposed to think about him, and that there’s no moral judgement to be had on his fighting. One day, Apollo Creed’s widow (played by Clair Huxtable) shows up, tells him that he is the illegitimate son of the greatest boxer of all time (in the world of the movie), and that she is going to raise him. That sets up the weak premise that an adult Adonis, now after years of living in an Hollywood mansion, comes home from his boring banking job every day to shadow box to old boxing videos of his father, and moonlights as an amateur boxer in unregulated bouts in Mexico on weekends. We get two characters in one now, the Adonis who was a rough-and-tumble kid going through the foster care system, and the wealthy, well-educated Adonis who has benefited from his father’s success despite never having had a relationship with him, and thus resenting him for it. It would seem that the filmmakers couldn’t agree on what backstory made the most sense.  They didn’t want it to be another story of an underprivileged, angry black kid being “civilized” by a white trainer. But they also didn’t want it to be about a rich kid just trying to prove his worth. So they tried to have it both way…

Which leads us to the very confused motivations of Adonis Johnson/Creed (he assumes his dad’s name later on). Why exactly does Adonis want or need to fight? There’s a sort of mythical explanation that he has to fight because it’s in his blood and just “who he is.” But then, we’re also told that he’s looking for some sort of validation from and forgiveness for his father. While the two things don’t conflict, they do clutter the character and make some of his reactions to being called “Baby Creed” or “False Creed” sort of silly and immature. He says he wants to make it on his own, and yet as Tessa Thompson’s character Bianca tells him, he’s been using his privilege the whole time she — and we — have known him. So, to her point, what exactly is Adonis Creed trying to prove? What does the Creed name mean to him?

The question never really is answered, but thanks to Michael B Jordan’s charisma and onscreen presence it doesn’t even have to be. Jordan holds the record for actor who has brought me to the brink of tears the most times (see: TV incarnations of “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood,” “Creed”)! He does a lot with a character who doesn’t really make sense, and he and Stallone cultivate a great chemistry that translates well for both the fight scenes and the more personal home and hospital scenes.

“Creed” actually is the film that “Rocky V” should have been, but unfortunately Stallone was a bit too young and insecure to fully take on the grizzled mentor role.  Still just 44 years old at the time, Sly wasn’t ready to hand off the hero role in his own series, leading to the dreadful street fight with Tommy Gunn that annoyingly let us know Rocky was still our guy. Now, a much older Stallone happily and effectively plays the Mickey to Adonis’ Rocky. “Creed”-era Stallone looks more like a fossilized version of himself: strong and hulking, but with a layer of rust that can’t be scrubbed off. Allowing his character to get sick and show his vulnerability definitely deserves the Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination rumbles that we’re already hearing. He’s strangely gentle in a way we haven’t seen, and probably the closest version to his character from the original film.

I already mentioned Ryan Coogler’s self-assured direction, which really stands out during the boxing scenes, that are by far the best of the “Rocky” series and possibly of any other boxing movies. You’ll probably already have read a lot about him insisting on single-shot fight scenes, and they are in fact as effective as the hype suggests. People in our screening were cheering after every punch, and it’s clear there was a large amount of complicated choreography that went into shooting these scenes. Word is Coogler is already being tapped to take on the next Marvel hero, Black Panther. Let’s hope he doesn’t! What a waste of talent that would be.

By the time the credits rolled, I got the sense that Coogler was trying to sneak a very important and personal film into a large Hollywood epic. It’s evident he has an interest in loss, specifically losing something you love to do. Bianca is a musician who’s losing her hearing, Rocky a boxer losing his strength in and out of the ring. The movie is at its best thematically when it’s tackling those issues, which ironically don’t really involve Adonis. I can’t overlook the fact that the lead character is the least interesting or plausible in a film and still call it great. But I will say that “Creed” makes up for a lot of its flaws to give us a very entertaining and genuinely emotional experience. It’s a real testament to what strong acting and direction can do to get over a bumpy script.

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